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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
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Stitches

STITCHES AND THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
 
There has been a fair amount of whining and whinging online about the selection of STITCHES as a National Book Award finalist in the Young People’s Literature category.  Now I am probably in the minority on this (yet again!), but I find it all completely misguided.
 
The National Book Foundation allows publishers to submit books in each of the categories.  Norton decided to submit STITCHES in the Young People’s Literature category for some combination of the following reasons: (a) graphic novelist Gene Yang would have been one friendly judge, (b) Kathi Appelt whose book, THE UNDERNEATH, was illustrated by David Small, likely would have been another, (c) David Small is well known as a children’s book illustrator and his credentials would have likely carried more weight with his peers, (d) the book does have some of the classic themes and characteristics of young adult literature, (e) the Young People’s Literature category which must encompass all genres of literature already has an outside-the-box track record, and (f) there were 481 titles submitted in Nonfiction compared to the 251 in Young People’s Literature.  The publisher wisely chose to submit this in the Young People’s Literature category and their strategy paid off.
 
It’s important to understand that once a book is eligible it has to be treated the same as the other books; you cannot continue to argue that it doesn’t belong there, especially if not everybody is of one mind.  It appears that there was a question among the judges, according to Harold Augenbraum, and the book was ruled eligible because that is where the publisher submitted it.  We can probably infer that the judges had some of the same questions and concerns that have been voiced around the internet.  One imagines that if they were unanimous in their opposition to the categorization of this book they need not have shortlisted it, regardless of eligibility.  If they were not unanimous, however, then it forces the judges to discuss literary merit rather than assumptions about what a young adult book is.  And nobody has yet made the argument that it is actually inferior to any of the omitted titles, WHEN YOU REACH ME or otherwise. 
 
STITCHES AND THE PRINTZ AWARD
 
People seem to have the National Book Award confused with the Printz Award which does require that the book be designated by the publisher as a young adult title, but even that can be fraught with difficulty (as I believe that AMERICAN BORN CHINESE was similarly ambiguous in its publication).  Norton does not typically publish books specifically for young adults, so in order for STITCHES to be eligible the Printz chair would have to ascertain whether they had sufficiently marketed it for young adults, how it was listed in their catalog, how it was advertised, and so forth.  I do not suspect this kind of evidence would have been enough to convince anybody that Norton conceived it as a young adult title . . . but it becomes very interesting now that Norton submitted the book to the Young People’s Literature category rather than Nonfiction. It’s a solid piece of evidence that the publisher considers it a crossover title, one published for adults and teenagers.  Does this open the door for Printz consideration?  Perhaps it should.
 
STITCHES AND THE NEWBERY MEDAL
 
Now please don’t get your knickers in a twist.  I’m going to state up front that this is an academic discussion, that I have no expectation that STITCHES will earn Newbery recognition (just as I stated up front that I have no expectation that A SEASON OF GIFTS will earn Newbery recognition).  I think we should hold STITCHES up for examination under the Newbery lens nevertheless because I think it will help us question the assumptions that we have about the Newbery Medal, assumptions which may not be founded in the terms and criteria of the award.
 
Namely, that STITCHES is eligible for the Newbery Medal.  Yes, it is an adult book, but adult books are eligible for the Newbery.  The very first Newbery Medal winner, THE STORY OF MANKIND, was an adult book and adult books continued to be recognized in the early years of the award.  The last adult book to be recognized was RASCAL by Sterling North, a 1964 Newbery Honor.  Now you will have some very good arguments about why adult books should no longer be recognized, but I’m going to propose two adult books that would have made fabulous Newbery books, and I think you’ll agree with me.  The first is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  And the second is WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS by Wilson Rawls.  Still think adult books shouldn’t win the Newbery?  Do tell.
 
I see no reason why they shouldn’t be considered provided they meet the criteria: it must have child appeal and display respect for their understandings, abilities, and appreciations–and so forth.  Clearly, STITCHES hugs the very upper limit of the Newbery audience.  It is very much a book for a fourteen-year-old and the revised Newbery manual gives us some additional guidance on these special cases.
 
In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the
upper age limit of fourteen.

If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger
readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets
out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.

Questions for committees to consider include these:

* Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
* If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
* If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?

A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age
range if the committee feels that

* it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book; or
* it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the
excellence it provides to a small but unique readership; or
* it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even
though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.
 
STITCHES fulfills each of these conditions and, thus, I believe we would do well to give the book serious consideration.  It has another very significant obstacle to overcome, however.  The Newbery committee recognizes a distinguished contribution based primarily on the text, the fine illustrations can only be considered if they detract from the book, if they are a negative.  This poses a problem for most graphic novels, especially those such as THE STORM IN THE BARN by Matt Phelan which are much more dependent upon the pictures than the text.
 
The thing that makes STITCHES so remarkable is that the script in and of itself has an unmistakably literary quality.  If ever there was a graphic novel that could win based solely on the text, it would be this one.  Now I had hoped to be able to quote sections of the text here to illustrate my point, but when the judges selected this as a finalist then it expedited this post (which I had been pondering in response to Wendy’s question about what’s too old for the Newbery).  Perhaps I’ll post quotes later, but for now I’ll direct you to the review on Seven Impossible Things for Breakfast where you can read just a single page of the text, but I believe that even with such a small sample, the stylistic quality of the prose is evident.
 
Again, it seems highly improbable that the Newbery committee would recognize this, and it would be a reach, to be sure, but I would rather see the committee reach for excellence on a controversial title than give the Reader’s Advisory Award to a juvenile book that will pass into oblivion a couple of years hence.  No, I cannot see the Newbery committee recognizing this book either, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t one of the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children.
 
Okay, kids, class is over.  Next time the pendulum swings in the other direction as we talk about some of those fine Newbery worthy picture book texts.  Yes, I speak of HOOK by Ed Young and THE DUNDERHEADS by Paul Fleischman.  Go do your homework.
 
 
 

 

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Peter says:

    I think the last adult book to be recognized was INCIDENT AT HAWK’S HILL by Allan W. Eckert, a 1972 Newbery Honor.

    Peter

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yikes! I expect a full report on the next Sunday Brunch. :-)

  3. Tricia says:

    Reasons (a) and (b) bother me a bit. Are you saying that folks know in advance who the judges are? This seems like a very bad idea. Are you saying that simply working in the same genre or having a previous association with an author/illustrator means a judge is biased? (You say friendly, but I read this to mean you feel there is some loss of objectivity here.)

  4. Wendy says:

    Hmm, The Story of Mankind is an adult book? I sort of remember times when Van Loon specifically addressed a child audience, though I haven’t got the book in front of me.

    (And no, I DON’T think To Kill a Mockingbird would have been a good Newbery choice; it crosses to young adult, and I think would likely have been published as such today, but is adult in its handling of its themes and characters.)

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Tricia, sometimes the public knows the judges up front; sometimes they are kept private until the finalists are announced. It seems to vary from year to year, but this year the judges were listed on the website from the get-go. I assume the publishers have always been privy to the identity of the judges, regardless of whether the public knows.

    I don’t know if you are familiar with adult nonfiction, Tricia, but they all look like big fat Harry Potter books–and there were 481 submitted. Now every year the YPL judges proudly state that they read all the books; nobody ever makes that claim for Nonfiction because it’s a physical impossibility. Had STITCHES been submitted for Nonfiction, the judges (not knowing that David Small is a superstar talent) might not even have read the book, even with a divide and conquer strategy. With the YPL judges, I would expect that at the very least Gene Yang and Kathi Appelt would read it, so friendly in this case doesn’t mean biased, but rather open to this outside-the-box choice. I don’t know that Yang or Appelt even know Small personally so I don’t think it’s a nepotism thing.

    Wendy, so if TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is inappropriate for the Newbery Medal, then isn’t it also inappropriate that it is required reading for nearly every 14-year-old in this country?

  6. Brooke says:

    I suppose the question is, was To Kill a Mockingbird a more distinguished contribution to literature for children than Island of the Blue Dolphins, which was awarded the 1961 Newbery? I think it’s a tough call.

  7. Wendy says:

    Not at all, Jonathan. High schoolers read plenty of adult books in school and out, which I don’t consider inappropriate; but the Newbery criteria specify “excellence of presentation for children”, and I hold that TKAM is not presented for children. (Also, I haven’t conducted any kind of survey, but I think 15-17 is more common than 14.)

    I mean, that’s like saying The Odyssey should have won the 799 BC Newbery Medal because we read it my freshman year.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Brooke, yes, but whether you go with ISLAND or MOCKINGBIRD, though, the other one is still markedly better than the honor books from that year. Likewise with the choice between RED FERN and BRONZE BOW the following year.

    Wendy, we may disagree about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (or STITCHES or whatever), but you have left the main point of my argument unchallenged, namely that there are books that are published for adults that would be perfectly suitable for a child audience–and that these books are eligible for the Newbery.

  9. Wendy says:

    I don’t think that was in question, was it, Jonathan? As you and Peter point out, it’s happened before. But you seem to expect dissent…

    Who a book is published for is such a chancy thing. A Wrinkle in Time might have been an adult book, after all (and probably dropped into semi-oblivion). I don’t see any need to disqualify books outright if they’re really speaking to children.

  10. Misrule says:

    What you call whining and whinging are actually very well argued, considered pieces addressing the issues around the nomination of a clearly adult title (with YA appeal) in this category. You can disagree with their position, but don’t misrepresent their tone to shore up yours.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Judith, I think you are taking my tone too seriously. If I didn’t find them well argued, considered pieces then I wouldn’t have linked to them to provide effective counterpoint to my own opinion.

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